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Vancouverism: A West End Story

January 1, 2010 | by  |  Features

While global population growth has stabilized at 1%, urban numbers continue to explode. Planners the world over are on the lookout for functional models of density, and now, Vancouver’s unique approach has earned it a classification all of its own: Vancouverism.

For those living here, it’s easy to take for granted the vibrant, densely-populated urban core, with its abundance of public spaces and parks, and its pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. It is a balance of prosperity and livability envied across the globe, one reflected in our continuous ranking as the world’s most livable city. But conscious, considerate planning has not always been the hallmark of Vancouver’s progress. This Golden Age has been preceded by many decades of bronze, and nowhere is that better exemplified than in the history of the West End.

When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1886, its executives sought land to build homes. As one of the few areas that didn’t require the construction of a new bridge, the West End presented an obvious choice, and the first mansions were built along a bluff rising 40 feet above Coal Harbour, with fine views of the inlet and the North Shore.

Not long after settlement began, the Dominion of Canada set aside the 1,000 acres of logged forest nearby. Named after Governor General Lord Stanley, the park was dedicated ‘to the use and enjoyment of peoples of all colours, creeds, and customs, for all time’. At first it was indiscernible from the tangle of tree and thorn covering the Downtown Peninsula, but with the steady conversion of woodland to Victorian mansion, Lord Stanley’s Park became quite the jewel indeed, and the magnificent homes beside it – so close to work, beach, and greenspace – comprised the most exclusive neighbourhood in the city. By 1910, the entire square mile of 66′ lots was occupied by rich and middle-class families.

High Density Housing

The British Columbia Electric Railway operated rail cars on Robson, Denman, and Davie Streets. The Central Business District and the West End fed off one another – demand for workers increasing the demand for housing, and demand for housing increasing the demand for jobs. Retail shops began to appear along the streetcar lines, servicing those coming to and from work. Vancouver enjoyed a booming trade in forestry, fishing and mining, and the success of the city put pressures on the West End that its original structures could not withstand.

As of 1926, Vancouver had no concrete zoning regulations. Development continued unchecked throughout the 66′ grid, with the construction of apartments and conversion of old homes to multi-tenant dwellings becoming commonplace. To serve the growing population, storefronts were setup on ground floors and in front yards. Wooden construction, now several decades old, began to show its age. The upper classes fled the neighbourhood.

With the Great Depression came an enormous demand for cheap rental accommodation, and a rapid acceleration in the breakdown of private homes, and their conversion to multi-tenant rentals. Newly-enacted zoning laws limited wooden structures to two stories and inadvertently encouraged an aggressive use of lot space. While the original houses of the West End were vigorous exercises in timber construction, the apartments that replaced them showed little imagination. In areas where considerable redevelopment had taken place, the resulting street picture was monotonous, and the basic standards of light, air, and privacy were minimized by the closeness of the buildings.

By the 1940s the conversion from upper to lower-class was complete, and the papers were filled with articles describing the crowded and polluted living conditions to be found in the West End. City health officials labeled over 50% of the suites they inspected as ‘unsuitable’ for living. Pollution from heavy industry along False Creek forced Mamie Maloney – the newspaper columnist – to wash her kitchen drapes every two weeks, and lament the ‘tattle-tale grey’ that stained her white linens, hung out to dry.

Nothing changed until the 1950s. Motordom – the idea that everyone would drive everywhere for everything – was changing the course of entire countries. Modern construction and financial instruments made it possible to build larger structures, more quickly than ever before. A profound change was unavoidable, sealed by the arrival of Gerald Sutton Brown as City Planning Director. Sutton Brown sought to change planning from a custodial enterprise into an active effort to improve the human environment. Centered in his sights, was the West End. “Where else is there residential so close to the business center of a great city?” he admired, and dismissed the construction of two storey apartments as ‘useless’, tabling instead a plan for buildings ten stories or more.

In 1956, City Council enacted the new zoning bylaws recommended for the West End. They eliminated height restrictions, and introduced a new tool for controlling development: floor space ratio. It is a metric still used today – calculated by dividing the total square footage of a building by its total site area. The West End was permitted an FSR of 3.0, intended as a deterrent to the ‘box’ forms of apartments, and a promotion of tall, well-spaced modern architecture. The number of building sites doubled from 1955 to 1956. It spawned an explosion of high-rise apartments, fueled by the booming economy, and while the rest of North America burst out into suburbia, the West End experienced a 50% increase in population in the 1960s.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

The new construction was tall, fast and cheap, and quickly recognized as such. Proponents cited the strong lines and clean facades as new heights in architectural design, but few saw the bland, repeated patterns as anything other than pure capitalism. The new zoning regulations affected little control over the whims of private capital, and shrewd developers realized that while the FSR limited a building’s footprint, it could still be constructed narrowly across the width of the site, thus providing and stealing as many ‘views’ as possible. The structures were declared parasites on the community – thieves of light, air and amenity. Residents bemoaned the new character of their neighbourhood: “In 1955, the eight storey Sylvia Hotel was the tallest building in the West End. Today, 20 years later, it is hidden beneath a forest of high-rise apartment buildings; the fine old mansions that once surrounded it are gone; the inexpensive rooming-houses destroyed; the human scale of the area obliterated; and all in the name of progress and profit.”

Compounding the despair was the constant flow of traffic. The original streets, converted from horse cart paths and still dissecting the 66′ grid, could not keep up with the demands of motorists. Every summer they were clogged with the automobiles of beach and park goers, and every rush hour, the arterial streets were jammed with cars trying to get out to Georgia. So pervasive was the mentality of motordom, that Sutton Brown’s planning department could only imagine the neighbourhood with a complete saturation of the automobile:

“On the basis of estimated traffic figures, it appears that an elaborate arrangement of freeway connections and major arteries will be required to service the West End … At present, most of the local streets are residential in character, but with the necessary improvements and the volume of traffic to be carried, this residential amenity will be removed.”

It was a transformation taking place all across North America, but opposition in the West End was strong. The neighbourhood was built for life before the car, and over 50% of its residents lived as such.

In 1971 the Social Development Committee commissioned a report by Robert Collier, who stressed an emphasis on people over technology.

“In the past five years the city has spent close to $1M on transportation studies,” he observed, “we seem to be more interested in cars than people – for we have not spent one-tenth of that amount obtaining up-to-date social information.”

His report filled that void, making extensive use of community dialogue. Collier discovered – much to the shock of the city – that people actually enjoyed living in the West End. A high value was placed on its easy access to work, play, shopping, variety of accommodation, and reasonable rent. The main leisure activity was walking, and the primary concerns of residents were noise, pollution, traffic, parking, and community spirit. Collier stressed the importance of public input in the development process, citing residents criticism of the city’s past insensitivity to their concerns. The assessment spawned a critical shift in planning policy, and local teams were established to consult the city.

The result was a moratorium on the construction of new towers, the installation of traffic barriers and mini-parks to restore calm and reduce noise, the construction of a new community center, and a community development plan, which saw a reduction of floor space ratios, a restoration of building height limitations, rules governing sunlight penetration, and incentives to integrate amenities into new buildings. The 1975 West End Plan was a recognition that, although the massive redevelopment of the district did not result in absolutely disastrous consequences, it did produce a number of problems that, if unchecked, would lead to a severe deterioration in the quality of life of the residents in the district.

The 1975 plan was the result of almost a century of rapid development in the West End. Its principles remain largely unchanged even today, and the neighbourhood’s skyline is almost exactly the same as it was forty years ago. Still, it is one of the most desirable places to live on the planet, and the memory of its successes and failures have been applied to False Creek, Coal Harbour, the Olympic Village, and the city of Vancouver as a whole.

Check out those view corridors, and that easy access to pristine coastline.

Oh, yeah.

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.

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2 Comments


  1. Douglas Coupland on West End view corridors, in a sense: “Because there are so many towers all close together, sooner or later one person’s latent voyeurism meets with somebody else’s latent exhibitionism, and many residents are made happy at very little cost.”

  2. Great summary Matt

    this is a must read to anyone that lives here or is a new westender like myself

    Congrats

    brad

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